It is important for funders, entrepreneurs, and policy leaders to understand the dominant theories of change in education philanthropy.
Funders should be clear about what they believe, as well as understand why other funders hold different beliefs.
Entrepreneurs should seeks funds from aligned funders and be pushing foundations to align their theories to what’s actually happening on the ground.
Policy leaders should be evaluating, debating, and challenging funders on how their theories might be improved – and calling out when the theories are simply wrong.
I see five dominant theories in education philanthropy; they are detailed below, with some minor commentary on areas of agreement, admiration, and concern.
Theory: The most effective way to increase student achievement is to improve teacher recruitment, preparation, development, and evaluation.
How to Identify these Funders: These folks often start their sentences with “research shows that teachers are the most important in-school factor” and end their sentences with “as Finland and Singapore have shown.” I kid but it’s true.
What I Agree With: In my work in cities across the country, few high-quality charter schools are satisfied with teacher preparation at colleges of education. Moreover, colleges of education have done a poor job of developing a knowledge based around effective teaching. Improvements in these areas (if feasible) would be of great use.
Concerns: I think this theory’s greatest flaw is that teachers are in fact not the most important factor. As I recently wrote, I’m highly convinced that school operators are the most important factor. An over emphasis on teachers may come at the detriment of a focus on operators.
#2 We Need Better Products
Theory: Innovation in products (schools models, software, platforms, etc.) will radically improve the student learning experience.
How to Identify These Funders: You’re in Silicon Valley talking to a 29 year old billionaire who begin his sentence with “factory model” and ends his sentences with “disruption through exponential growth.” I kid but it’s true.
What I Agree With: I’m bullish on much of this theory of change. I’m extremely excited by many new school models (see Silicon Schools portfolio), software (Zearn, Dreambox, etc.), and platforms (Alt School, Summit). Education reform has a history of not being end user focused, and the consumer oriented discipline of this crew is welcome.
Concerns: I worry that these funders underestimate the power of regulatory change in creating the conditions for better products. The “we don’t need more charter schools we just need to scale Summit” ethos is dangerous, as Summit will inevitably not be the pinnacle of education delivery. If the product folks will shy away from necessary regulatory battles because these battles are not as fun as creating new products, we will have far fewer great education products.
#3 Turn the Battleship 10 Degrees
Theory: If you don’t focus on the where the kids are at now, you’re going to lose a generation of kids while you build all these great products / charter schools / etc – minor improvements in big systems matter.
How to Identify These Funders: When you go to pitch them they begin by presenting you with a 90 slide ppt deck which begins with “district proof point” and ends with “teachers really, really do love VAM.” I kid but it’s true.
What I Agree With: Most students in this country do attend traditional public schools, and the regulatory policy framework governing these schools – especially in areas such as standards and assessments – is worth trying to get right.
Concerns: Outside of a few key areas (such as standards and assessments), I’m skeptical that over the long haul many of these reforms (such as teacher evaluations) will work or stick. And even if they do stick the political opportunity cost is so high that they will have to achieve major impacts to warrant the cost.
#4: Social Justice
Theory: Radically increasing educationally opportunity will require significant improvements in racial justice, economic inequality, integration, criminal justice, and healthcare (including early childhood services).
How to Identify These Funders: The Bernie Sanders lapel pins. I kid but it’s true.
What I Agree With: It’s been exciting to watch a new wave of reformers who believe in this theory and also believe you need to push on in-school reforms as well; for too long, many of the most vocal leaders of this theory were paradoxically nihilistic about making schools better (teachers can’t improve student achievement! pay teachers more!). Given the obvious importance of these social issues, I’m eager to watch how these leaders make the reform movement better.
Concerns: When it comes to actual policy making, I sometimes find that these leaders have a somewhat naive belief on the ability to improve districts, as well as an under underappreciation for how hard it is to scale effective social services.
Theory: The governance of public education is the root cause of most of our system’s ills.
How to Identify These Funders: They start their sentences with “there was this groundbreaking voucher study that gave 14 kids a $600 stipend” and end their sentences with “Freedom!” I kid but it’s true.
What I Agree With: Most of it. I believe that will we see increased educational opportunity and, yes – freedom – by allowing educators to start and run schools, as well as giving parents the right to freely choose amongst these schools. And the only way this will occur is if we overhaul how we govern schools.
Concerns: There’s a ton of internal debate within the governance community about how to best regulate these systems, and I have concerns about all the most popular models (vouchers, education savings accounts, charters, portfolio, etc.). The tension between innovation and equity is one I struggle with here, and I’m eager to watch more experiments unfold.
All right, this was just a quick run down. I’m sure I’m missing a dominant theory or two.
And I admit that I cheated by lumping in early childhood with social justice, but 5 theories seems tidier than 6.
Lastly, I think this is less of an issue of “one of these theories is true and the rest aren’t” and more of a case of resource allocation.
In a world of limited time, talent, and money – what should we focus on?